Cracks are beginning to show in the Israeli right-wing’s romance with US President Donald Trump. His backtracking on campaign rhetoric, particularly the promise to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem and his seeming adoption of previous administrations’ policies when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its possible solutions, are not what his enthusiastic supporters in Israel and the West Bank wished for or banked on.
“It’s time to get the banners out of storage and direct them towards Trump,” said Itamar Ben Gvir, one of the leaders of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish might) party, in a statement issued Wednesday evening.
Ben Gvir, 41, an attorney and longtime political activist who represents the right of the right on the Israeli political dial, called on fellow right wingers, particularly the leaders of the settler movement and their political representatives, to begin speaking out against the president.
“Obviously the moving of the embassy is not the be all and end all and politicians constantly go back on elections promises,” said Ben Gvir. “ But Trump cannot be exonerated and we can’t treat it as a natural occurrence. It is time to start criticizing him.”
Ben Gvir noted that such criticism would be effective because it would hurt Trump among his voter base, who are supporters of Israel. Ben Gvir also pointed to the weapons deal Trump signed with Saudi Arabia and a White House statement against continued settlement expansion in the West Bank as examples of his failures.
Now it must be stressed, Ben Gvir is a right wing radical. A member of the now outlawed Kach party and a leader of the Jewish settlement in Hebron, he is an extremist ideologue and a famous provocateur. Many of the clients he has represented in court belong to the so-called Hilltop Youth movement, who have been tried and occasionally convicted for illegal outpost building, violence against Palestinians and connection to “price-tag” revenge attacks against Palestinians, left-wing activists and Israeli authorities.
Ben Gvir is a familiar face at any far-right gathering, whether it be anti-migrant protests, rallies against Jewish-Muslim intermarriage or counter rallies at peace protests. If Israel had an alt-right movement, he’d be among its leaders.
The more established right wing, that which rules the country and represents the public in government, is still basking in the afterglow of Trump’s recent visit. His promises of everlasting support for Israel, his demand for the Palestinians to stop incitement and glorification of terror, his silence on the issue of Palestinian statehood or borders for Israel, all re-stoked the flames that his elections victory set fire to.
But the emotional roller coaster Trump has provided them since taking office can take a turn at any moment. His signing of the waiver Thursday leaving the US embassy in Tel Aviv would be a blow. Right wing politicians on all levels have strongly urged Trump to move the embassy as he repeatedly promised. Failure to do so would not be the end of the world. Other presidents had promised to do so from the campaign trail podium only to renege from behind the desk of the Oval Office, but it would sting.
There is no doubt that moving the embassy would produce far more negative backlash than if Trump signs the waiver. Twenty two years of American fear of taking the step are sufficient testimony of that. But Trump has positioned himself in a place that signing the waiver also carries risk.
Trump is not one to fear a few critical banners. And it’s not like the Israeli right is superimposing his face onto the photo of Yasser Arafat or burning his effigy over a bonfire like they did to his predecessor. But like the president himself, Israeli love is a fickle thing. Yes, Ben Gvir and his supporters are on a lower rung in the ladder. But his demand to start calling Trump to order and especially his pointing out of high level people in the settler movement and in government, who he claims have pull among Trump’s circle of advisors and supporters, indicate where the crack may spread.
Like Ben Gvir said, many among the president’s base are strong supporters of the Israeli right, people who want to see the president say yes to the current government’s requests. So far doing that came at very little cost. Further delay in moving the embassy might present a test of loyalty that Trump may not want to learn the answers to.